Tom Petty was only half-right. The waiting is the hardest part. But so is the not knowing. Will my house still be standing after evacuation orders are finally lifted and I’m allowed to go home following California’s latest monster wildfire?
I blame the sorry state of local television news for the not knowing part.
What progress in specific locations were crews making to stop the advancing flames? Would my neighborhood be reduced to charcoal? Good luck gaining any insights from the TV.
As a former newspaper reporter who covered his share of big time disasters, I concede a certain bias. We in the print world have always looked down our noses a tad at our on-camera colleagues, less for their perfect hair than their historic preference for sensational (“If it bleeds, it leads”) over substantive journalism.
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But there is no denying that when it comes to breaking news such as an inferno raging out-of-control, where timely information can literally mean life or death, TV journalism is king.
In this case, a pathetically inadequate king.
Decamped with my wife from our beautiful canyon home outside Santa Barbara, I have sat fixated for the past several days in the family rooms of friends gracious enough to take us in, and watched local television’s coverage of the Thomas fire. What progress in specific locations are crews making to stop the advancing flames? Will my neighborhood be reduced to charcoal?
Good luck gaining any insights from TV.
What viewers like me have been fed instead are sorely sporadic reports from a paltry handful of mostly inexperienced field reporters, talking heads at the anchor desk filling air time, and endlessly repeated B-roll shots of hillsides terrifyingly aflame.
These images have been aired over and over, often days after the fire in the area shown has been extinguished – as if the station can’t find anything more horrifying to broadcast. This is punctuated by what we in print journalism call “puff” pieces – news features of dubious importance, usually reported from well behind the fire lines.
Want to know how to properly seat a surgical-style facemask so you don’t inhale all that nasty ash in the air? I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve sat through my local TV news professionals demonstrating this otherwise simple process as if it were trigonometry.
Want to know how best to dispose of the ash accumulated on your patio? Hint: Do NOT use a broom or leaf blower lest you inhale all those toxic particles, because you clearly haven’t been told enough times how to wear a face mask.
Sure, they may look like journalists, with their earnest live stand-ups, brushy hillsides burning in the background, and their yellow turn-out jackets like the ones firefighters wear. Often, however, they have seemed incapable of doing what real journalists do every day when the world seems to be coming to an end: Exercise sound news judgment, calmly gather the necessary facts, and inform the public.
It’s enough to make anyone desperate for accurate and timely information turn to the amateur “citizen” journalists who listen in on emergency scanner radios these days and report real news in real time via Twitter or Facebook. I’ve done just that this past week, and been consistently rewarded with actionable information about where the fire is headed, even what’s happening on my own road, minutes or seconds after the fact.
If you believe that endlessly recycled shots of water-dropping helicopters dipping their snorkels into local reservoirs, or firefighters enjoying hot food donated by a community grateful for their gallant service, constitute essential information in time of still-unfolding crisis, then local television may be your best choice in news. But good luck allaying your fears as to whether you will still have a home when the crisis passes, or how your neighbors fared.
After nearly a week of waiting and not knowing, we remain evacuated, but it looks increasingly as if our house will survive.
At least I now know how to properly clean up all that ash.
David Freed is a screenwriter, novelist and former reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He can be contacted at David-Freed.com.